Getting Home in 1839

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Getting Home in 1839

We often make the mistake of thinking that people in the Past were just us in funny clothes. We forget how different their material circumstances were, as well as what weird baggage they had in their heads, which was different from the weird baggage in our heads. Here's a corrective: read about Mrs Dana's hair-raising attempt to get home from New Orleans in 1839.

Getting Home

A steamboat in St Louis, 1832

In a short time we also embarked in a steamer for St. Louis, where we remained for a month or six weeks. We then ascended the Mississippi as far as Bloomington, Iowa; at which place we landed, and we were so much pleased with the appearance of the place, that we decided on spending the summer there. The place had been settled about three years1, and contained nearly or quite three hundred inhabitants, and had, so far, proved quite healthy. But the summer of 1839 was a very sickly one. There was a long-continued drought; the Mississippi river was unusually low, and the consequence was the prevalence of congestive fevers in all that region2. Indeed, throughout the whole West and South, it was a summer long to be remembered.

I was the first to take the fever, and had scarcely recovered, when our little Charlie, our only child, became alarmingly ill. The only experienced physician in the village was likewise ill, so that we laboured under a serious disadvantage. After lingering for a fortnight the dear little fellow died. Two days before his death, my husband was taken with the same fever, and also died, after an illness of only four days. Nothing but the consolations of religion could have supported me under this double bereavement. Left entirely alone, thousands of miles away from every relative I had on earth, there was no human arm on which I could lean, and I was to rely on God alone. It was well, perhaps, for me, that I was just so situated. It has taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten, that our heavenly Father will never lay upon us a heavier burthen than he will give us strength to bear3. And here I must record my warm and grateful tribute to the genuine kindness and sympathy of Western hearts. If I had been among my own kindred, I could not have received more earnest and affectionate attention.

As soon as I could settle my affairs, and find suitable protection, I started for my distant home4, longing to lay my aching head on the bosom of my own dear mother, and to be encircled in my father's arms.

I was received in St. Louis with the greatest kindness, and remained there for a week. Placed under the charge of a kind physician, we took a steamer for Cincinnati, but found the river so low, it would be next to impossible to reach there. After sticking fast upon every sand-bar we encountered for a day or two, the captain all the while assuring us that we should soon arrive at Cincinnati, we determined to take advantage of the first boat that passed us, and return to the Mississippi. Nor was it long before we were enabled to put this design into execution.

In New Orleans the fever was raging to an alarming degree. My kind protector had now reached his home and could accompany me no further, and I could hear of no one who was going in my direction at that season of the year – the human tide was all setting the other way. At length a friend called to inform me that a schooner was about to sail for Pensacola. Knowing my intense anxiety to reach home, he had called to let me know of the opportunity, thinking that from Pensacola I would be able to reach Charleston without difficulty, though, for his own part, he strongly advised me not to attempt going in the schooner. But I had grown desperate, and caught eagerly at the proposal. Accordingly, that very afternoon, I was conducted to the schooner by my friend, and introduced to the captain, who kindly promised to take good care of me. I must confess my heart almost failed me when, after crossing the deck on the tops of barrels, with which the vessel was loaded, I dived into a cabin dark, low, and musty, and found that I was the only female on board5.

But the case was a desperate one, and I submitted to necessity, but bade my friend 'farewell' with a heavy heart. We were towed down the canal by horses to the entrance of Lake Ponchartrain, where we were quietly to lie till the next morning. Never shall I forget the sufferings of that dreadful night. The cabin was infested with roaches of an enormous size6, and as soon as candles were lighted, they came out of their hiding-places by hundreds and thousands, and literally covered the bed where I was to sleep. Mosquitos also were swarming around; but this was not all. 1 was taken so ill that it seemed as if I could not live till morning. I shudder even now when I think of it.

By daylight I called the captain to my side and begged him to get me back to the city. He said there was a schooner which had just come in from the lake, and was going up to the city, and offered to put me aboard of her. I joyfully consented, and he took me in his arms like an
infant, carried me on board of the newly-arrived schooner, and seated me in a chair on a pile of wet boards, of which her cargo appeared to consist. After two or three hours of intense suffering, for I was really very sick, I once more reached my friends in New Orleans, who were overjoyed to see me, and who fully determined to prevent me, by force, if necessary, from making any more such travelling experiments. In a few days the steamer between New Orleans and Pascagoula commenced running, and finding company, I at length reached home in safety.

Afterword: We hold no brief for Mrs Mary Dana Shindler, who wrote this, as a writer or lyricist. She penned some of the worst (and most morbid) religious songs in existence. At one time, she edited the Voice of Truth, a Spiritualist magazine published out of Memphis, Tennessee. She loved to go to seances where 'Indian spirit guides' appeared. A high point of her séance fandom was the time Robert E Lee appeared. (She was a very ardent Confederacy supporter.) Her personal views on the Trinity fill a volume of published letters to friends. She changed her mind on that subject twice.

The point of this excerpt is to let us have a glimpse into what was different about 'back then', and what was the same. Epidemic? Scary. Sudden death? Oh, yeah. Transportation? You decide. What's worse, a schooner full of cockroaches, or a modern airport?

If you'd like to read more about Mrs Shindler's life, and find out what she thought about monkeys, read The Female Prose Writers of America by John Seely Hart, 1857.

Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

25.01.21 Front Page

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1In the 1830s and 1840s, some North Americans were quite casual about settling on a frontier. They were throwing up towns at a rapid rate.2Sudden epidemic outbreaks were also quite common. And there was no Centers for Disease Control.3People are still saying this. It drives a clergyman of my acquaintance absolutely wild with disapproval.4In Charleston, South Carolina. This woman grew up among plantation owners. Full disclosure: we're not trying to excuse her attitudes, merely study them.5Aside from 1839 gender attitudes, this could actually be dangerous. See Anne Royall about travelling alone.6Don't laugh. They might have been Florida cockroaches.

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